4 Tips for Connecting with Shy Students

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

Imagine this: you enter your classroom to students with notebooks and pens poised. Your lesson plan is chock full of communicative activities and chances to practice language authentically. You’re armed with lexis, grammar, and helpful usage tips. You’re pumped and ready to get this class off the ground.

You start with a bright and cheery, “Hey everyone! How’s it going?” But there’s no response. You try again with limited success.

Undeterred, you soldier on and start with a short warmer: a simple question about the topic. “Ready? Go!” Silence. Heartbreaking, awkward silence. The students stare at you, at each other, at their notebooks. You’re not sure what corner of the rug the magic slipped under, but you’re ready to go there yourself. You wonder how you’re going to get through the next hour.

While there are many possible reasons a class can lose its conversational luster, one possible cause for the seeming lack of reluctance to talk is simple shyness. For some students, making conversation with someone new isn’t quite the confidence building adventure that extroverts seek, and having to do this in their new language may be nothing short of a social hellscape. The learning environment and relationship you create with them is crucial in developing their confidence and will to speak up.

Here are 4 tools in my arsenal that I use to coax shy students to open up:

1. Develop the relationship first.

One of the best pieces of feedback I received in my first week teaching in China was to spend more time chatting with my students at the beginning of class. So, in my first month of teaching, I dove in. I learned about hometowns, about great weekends, about terrible weekends, about tyrannical bosses, about new babies and weddings on the horizon, about the real day-to-day life of my students.

Put efforts into developing relationships with your students

I asked questions, and if my students weren’t immediately forthcoming with stories, I told them my own. Sometimes my willingness to share my personal life (within reason) surprised the students, but most of the time it went a long way in breaking the ice. The students got to see the woman behind the lesson plan and hopefully feel a bit more comfortable as we dove into class.

If your school has opportunities to chat with students outside of class, like a lounge or computer lab, get out there as much as possible. One of my favorite parts of my school in Shanghai was the time spent doing just this. Normally it would start with one or two students, then I’d notice a few folks loitering by the edges of our lounge couch, and finally a few students who rarely dare strike up a conversation with a foreign teacher would meander on over. One or two questions to the silent members of our new group would sometimes set off an excited five-minute ramble. The next time I saw that student in class, they were much more open to putting themselves out there.

2. Strategic buddies.

Being a relatively shy student in front of a class of chatty classmates and a confident teacher can be intimidating. Make the beauty of the pair check work for you here: try diffusing the pressure for this student by pairing them with a more talkative and supportive student. The more gregarious student may naturally initiate more of the discussion, while still allowing their partner to jump in and get some practice at their comfort level.

Make sure to keep a close eye on this pair and check in to offer support if you see the shy student slipping into silence. Working with the pair together offers a helpful intermediary to bridge the shy student’s confidence level and your position as teacher. I’ve found that the stronger student will tend to help their partner out, offering questions and encouragement to keep going. You can scaffold their conversation, ensuring the shy student is able to produce the target language correctly before moving on to the next group.

Confidence: mission possible.

3. Allow them to be the expert.

One of the reasons “write what you know” is a golden tip for writers is the same reason why “talk about what you know” can be a helping hand for a shy ESL student. An abstract topic like travel can be made a bit less challenging and much more interesting if students are asked to talk about their last vacation. Creating opportunities for students to talk about their own lives in the context of practicing speaking is a great starting point for students who are still finding their confidence.

Teachers can help students improve their language skills by empowering them during learning

Try this: ask your students to bring in photographs (either prints or on their phones) of their family, their home, their friends, etc. If you’re working with teens or adults who use Instagram (or a local equivalent – my fellow China-bound teachers will become intimately familiar with WeChat), this is a perfect technology tie-in. Instruct them to tell each other about their chosen photographs and ask questions about their partners’ photos. This still works with one-to-one lessons (you’re the partner!).

This can be woven into a pre-planned lesson, or you can work with the emergent language your students are using. Try having the students tell the same story at the end of the class to show how they’ve improved.

4. Praise mistakes.

Yes, really! This doesn’t mean confirming the incorrect use of a word, or offering up A-for-Effort badges. Students need useful and specific feedback just as much as they need useful and specific encouragement, which is what would advocate for.

In my experience, many of my shyer students are terrified to make a mistake in front of their classmates, and me for that matter. Creating an environment in which mistakes are okay, even encouraged, allows students to relax and become more fluent, rather than always be so focused on accuracy.

I like to remind my students that their mistakes are a big part of the real work they need to do to get better. If they are getting every utterance absolutely perfect, the class is too easy for them, or they aren’t pushing themselves enough. So, remind your students of the hard work they’re doing when they slip up and use the wrong preposition. While it may feel difficult for them, they are adopting the right mindset for improvement with every conversation.

These are some of the many ideas out there for encouraging your students to speak up. Of course, your strategies will vary, depending on the nationalities and ages you teach, the educational background of your students and how each individual responds to you, but the important thing is to be aware of how different approaches may help your students to improve. Give everything a try, and share it with others! The more we try (and make mistakes), the more we learn. See? These tips apply to teachers, too!

What strategies do you use for working with shy students? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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